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Nuts about Proteins 12/16/10

What is a complete protein and does it matter? Claire Martens finds out.


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A while ago my food-conscious friend informed me of a term which was new to me: “a complete protein”. You would think that, after many years of being a vegetarian, I would know what he was talking about. So I decided to do a little research because, if his suggestion is correct, I need to become more aware of the proteins I do eat.

A complete protein

First off, I wanted to better understand what a complete protein is. A complete protein is a protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. Deeper reading into essential amino acids reveals that these are “essential” because your body cannot produce them; hence you have to acquire them from your diet. Complete proteins are different to “incomplete” ones, because they supply the amino acids in amounts adequate for human use.

Amino acids are important for protein biosynthesis, whereby cells build proteins in your body. What this means is that amino acids are indispensible for human health and well-being. If you lack any of the 8/9 essential amino acids through a poor diet, you are essentially malnourished and are likely to feel tired, nervous and drained.

So I have two questions about complete proteins: which foods are considered complete and does it really matter if I don’t always eat them?

Most animal proteins (meat, eggs, dairy products) are considered complete; as is soy. Certain other grains and vegetables are also considered complete; such as amaranth (a traditional leafy vegetable), buckwheat, hempseed and others.

Because not many vegetables and grains, which are consumed by vegetarians and vegans on a regular basis, are complete, it’s suggested that we combine two proteins to create a complete protein. The general equation for a complete protein is legume + one of the following: seeds, nuts or grains.

Does it matter?

I am not an expert in the matter and, from my research, it appears the debate is still ongoing. But common sense tells me that complete proteins do matter.

As a vegetarian who is concerned with maintaining a healthy diet, I know I need to be aware of what I eat. As a woman I also require certain vitamins in greater quantities than men. Not only is my diet complicated by not eating meat, but I have to be aware of getting sufficient vitamins and minerals too – especially if you add in the stresses of every day life and the requirements of exercise, which deplete these vitamins and minerals quite rapidly.

From another perspective, I am pretty certain that proteins matter. As my mom likes to say, we cannot afford to eat “wasted calories”. What she means by this is that, in order to ensure a healthy waistline, avoid obesity and reduce cholesterol, we should try to avoid eating foods with low nutritional content. If we eat poor quality foods, such as high salt and fattening snacks, we end up missing out on important amino acids. If we don’t eat enough proteins we also also feel less full and end up eating more.

From a healthy waistline, as well as a health, perspective then, protein should be an integral part of every meal. This is particularly true of people like me who can’t be bothered to find out exactly what my food contains and the quantities that I require to be healthy. I would rather pop a multi-vitamin every morning than add up my Recommended Daily Allowances. But by ensuring I eat complete proteins every day, I will be certain that I am getting those essential amino acids which my body requires for good health.

Examples of simple meals which are considered complete

  • Rice cakes/whole wheat bread with peanut butter
  • Salad with chickpeas and cornbread
  • Rice and beans
  • Hummus (with sesame seeds)
  • Trailmix
  • Lentil curry with rice

I suggest having a few pots of various seeds and nuts available at all times. For flavour, variety and nutrition, throw linseeds, pumpkin seeds and/or mixed nuts (for example) into any meal.

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